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Progressive Christianity, Mysticism, and Healing

For a number of years, I have challenged my fellow progressive Christians to recognize the importance of mysticism, spirituality, paranormal normal experiences, and healing for a holistic faith for the future.  A recent Pew Center Report notes that 50% of persons who identify themselves as mainline Christians report having experiences of self-transcendence. The fact that every other mainstream or progressive Christian reports an encounter with the Holy suggests that a holistic and spirit-centered progressive theology must take mysticism, spirituality, and healing seriously.  Too often, we progressives have separated spirituality from social action, faith from social concern, and personal healing from global transformation.  We have also minimized the efficacy of prayer, healing touch, and healing ministry of Jesus, assuming that they can only be understood in modernist, supernaturalistic categories.  Scandalized by the antics of television faith healers, many progressives have rejected healing practices altogether.

The area of healing and the significance of Jesus’ healing ministry for first century and twenty- first century persons still remains a barely-charted frontier for progressive Christians.  With few exceptions, progressive Christians interested in healing and wholeness must read the works of holistic physicians and researchers such as Larry Dossey, Deepak Chopra, Candace Pert, and Herbert Benson to discover the connection between faith, spirituality, and healing.[1] Progressive Christians have written little or nothing about complementary medicine, despite the fact that many progressive pastors and laypersons practice, receive, or sponsor in their buildings, holistic modalities such as reiki healing touch, massage therapy, Qigong, healing touch, therapeutic touch, Tai Chi, and yoga.[2]  Still, for many progressives, the healings of Jesus remain alien phenomena, identified with supernatural explanations and the bombastic theatrics of televangelists.

I believe that progressive Christians need to reclaim and redefine the healings of Jesus as part of their embrace of today’s growing movements in global and complementary medicine.  Healing can be understood as natural, rather than supernatural, and can involve the transformation of energy in the dynamic interdependence of mind-body-spirit rather than the violation of predictable causal relationships.  Healing can take place in a multi-factorial context which includes DNA, diet, lifestyle, physical condition, economics, education, medical care, prayers, healing services, and the ever-present divine aim at abundant life.  Our prayers and healing touch may be the “tipping point” between health and illness, and life and death, in this intricate causal matrix.

I suspect many progressive Christians are daunted in their quest to reclaim the healings of Jesus by comments by leading progressives such as John Dominic Crossan. In Jesus: A Revolutionary Biography, Crossan denies that Jesus’ ministry involved curing physical ailmentsAfter correctly noting the distinction between healing and curing, and illness and disease, as articulated by contemporary medical anthropologists, Crossan notes: “This is the central problem of what Jesus was doing in his healing miracles.  Was he curing the disease [leprosy] from an intervention in the physical world, or was he healing the illness through an intervention in the social world?”  In response to his question, Crossan boldly asserts: “I assume that Jesus, who did not and could not cure that disease or any other one [emphasis], healed the poor man’s illness by refusing to accept the disease’s ritual uncleanness and social ostracization.”(82)  Although there is much to commend in Crossan’s understanding of Jesus’ healing ministry as a political and sociological phenomenon, why not take a more holistic – and, dare I say, more progressive – approach to the question and answer “yes” to both healing and curing, and social and physical transformation?  Jesus’ healing ministry transformed people’s social location, bringing them from marginalization to full humanity, as Crossan rightly asserts, but Jesus’ acts of compassionate care also transformed the whole person in the dynamic interplay of body, mind, and spirit.  Jesus’ healing ministry transformed cells as well souls, and transformed the physical body as well as the body politic, by activating deeper energies residing in the universe, and the divine-human partnership, reflective of the energies that brought forth the universe.

Progressive Christianity needs to go beyond “modern” mind-body dualism to a more holistic, relational, and constructive post-modern approach to healing and wholeness. Progressive Christians are challenged to consider the possibility that Jesus was able to achieve what many contemporary holistic and spiritual healers as well as faithful Christians at liturgical healing services regularly experience – the transformation of the whole person through healing touch, anointing with oil, reiki, prayer, or laying on of hands. As I suggested earlier, isn’t it possible that Jesus tapped into the deeper energies of the world, working within the causal relatedness of life?

In contrast to the modern world view’s separation of mind and body, sacred and secular, person and environment, and spirituality and social transformation, a truly holistic progressive theology affirms the insights of complementary and mind-body medicine and contemporary physics, both of which describe the relationship of mind, body, and spirit as part of one whole, interdependent reality in which spirituality shapes embodiment and embodiment shapes spirituality.  In light of this, when Jesus touched persons with leprosy, he may have done several things simultaneously: affirmed their humanity, welcomed them into the reign of God, deepened their spiritual awareness, transferred healing energy (dunamis), and awakened the healing energies resident in their bodies.  As fully aligned with God’s vision, Jesus may have experienced a special connection with the divine power that continuously creates the universe and gives life to every cell, variously known as chi, prana, and pneuma.  This might very well have been the case of the woman cured of her gynecological ailment, spiritual brokenness, and social alienation in when she touched Jesus.

Crossan rightly challenges magical and supernatural understandings of curing and appropriately recognizes that healing, involving the sense of personal meaning and social connection, is essential to our well-being.  But, perhaps, we need to ponder more appreciatively the unity of healing and curing in Jesus’ ministry.  Jesus touched persons with leprosy and reached out to persons with chronic and socially stigmatized diseases; but in the processes of welcoming them to God’s realm, Jesus may also have encountered them in ways that energized God’s healing presence within their lives, transforming cells as well as souls.  This is not magic or supernaturalism but a process of awakening people to the omnipresent movements toward abundant life in the quest for justice, in mystical experiences, and in moments of physical transformation.  As truly progressive Christians, we don’t need to choose between healing and curing – our hospitality to the marginalized and stigmatized, advocacy for universal and accessible health care, and action for healthy environments can be joined with liturgical healing services, anointing at the bedside, and global and complementary healing practices. Indeed, the One who invited his followers to do “greater things” may be inviting progressive Christian to take the lead in medically-affirming healing ministries that join high touch with high tech in responding holistically to persons in need.

Bruce Epperly is a theologian, spiritual guide, pastor, and author of twenty two books, including Process Theology: A Guide to the Perplexed, Holy Adventure: 41 Days of Audacious LivingPhilippians: An Interactive Bible Study, and The Center is Everywhere: Celtic Spirituality for the Postmodern Age.  His most recent text is Emerging Process: Adventurous Theology for a Missional Church to be released in January. But, above all, he seeks to share good news in ways that transform lives and heal the planet.  He may be reached at

                        [1] Some progressive-oriented writings on Jesus’ healings include Robert Webber and Tilda Norberg, Stretch Out Your Hand and Bruce Epperly, God’s Touch: Faith, Wholeness, and the Healing Miracles of Jesus and Healing Worship: Purpose and Practice.

                        [2] Some progressive-oriented writings on complementary medicine include Bruce and Katherine Epperly, Reiki Healing Touch and the Way of Jesus and Flora Litt, Healing from the Heart.

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